In sports, people love to hear about the next big thing. That sense of potential makes us tune in to see what all the chatter is about. So in the spirit of seeking future greats, let's look at an unconventional energy play in the U.S. that has some industry experts proclaiming it as the next great American energy play.
Sizing it up
Using the same sports analogy, we need a standard to compare with. Much as basketball fans use the term "the next Jordan" as the bar of excellence, oil companies use two unconventional shale plays as the standard bearers for the industry: the Eagle Ford and the Bakken. While there's some debate as to which play is better than the other, it's not too much of a stretch to claim that they're head and shoulders above the other areas.
Although both energy plays are different in many ways, they both have one thing in common: a strong liquids portfolio. So when we talk about the next great American energy play, we're going to make sure it isn't a gas-heavy giant like the Marcellus shale. The Bakken has a distinct advantage in the type of crude it produces. Continental Resources' (NYSE:CLR) wells in the Bakken are producing crude with an average API gravity of 42 degrees, a sulfur content about one-third less than other U.S. crudes, and one of the highest gasoline percentages of any crude in the country.
The Eagle Ford's advantage comes from its location. Hugging the Rio Grande just before it spills into the Gulf of Mexico, the basin has the advantage of being right next to the heart of America's oil and gas refining. Being so close to this region, which has been in the energy business for more than a century, also gives it a robust pipeline infrastructure to move product to its final destination.
So if you're scoring at home, we want a liquids-heavy play with high-quality crude and immediate access to pipelines and refineries.
So what's the SCOOP with this new energy play?
The next great energy play has yet to come up with a definitive name, because it more or less straddles the Woodford shale and the Anadarko basins. Some have come to know it as the Anadarko-Woodford formation. Others call it the South Central Oklahoma Oil Province, or SCOOP. Whatever you want to call it, you should pay attention, because it could be making a big splash in the American energy market very soon.
How does this basin rate based on the criteria I just mentioned? Like the Eagle Ford, it has multiple fairways depending upon what you want to drill for. In Continental's recent investor-day presentation on SCOOP, it said liquids content in the oil fairway were has high as 85%, but it also has NGL and gas fairways mixed in where a company can expect as much as 40% gas. With API gravity ranging from 45 to 60 degrees, it's some of the lightest crude around and would be an ideal blending crude for heavier crudes such as the Canadian oil sands. Finally, the play is located only a couple of hundred miles from Cushing, Okla., one of the primary gathering points for oil in the United States. That means it can tag on to existing pipeline networks relatively easily, in comparison with more remote locations such as the Bakken.
Considering all the upside potential this play has, several companies are wasting no time in getting on board with SCOOP. Devon Energy (NYSE:DVN) has expanded its production in the region by 31% year over year to more than 325 million cubic feet equivalent per day and expects to drill another 150 wells in the formation this year. Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO), which estimates to have proven and probable reserves in the region at approximately 615 million barrels of oil equivalent, expects a compounded annual growth rate of greater than 35% for SCOOP between now and 2017. Never to be outdone, ExxonMobil's (NYSE:XOM) subsidiary, XTO energy, just spent $147 million for an undisclosed amount of assets in the region from California-based company BNK Petroleum. Exxon hopes to achieve 45% production growth in North America over the next three decades, and promising plays like this one could be a step in the right direction for the oil giant.
What a Fool believes
Based on the metrics we have so far on the SCOOP play, it has the potential to be another game-changer for U.S. energy. At the most recent Howard Weil Energy Conference, Newfield Exploration (NYSE: NFX) estimates that the rate of return in the region will be well above 50% based on current economic conditions. With WTI prices closing the gap to Brent, it's possible that current economic conditions are a conservative estimate and the rates of return in the region could be even better. While it may be close to a major pipeline hub, further pipeline infrastructure will be needed to make this new play commercially viable. Look at companies such as Energy Transfer Partners (NYSE: ETP), which already has $360 million committed to a processing facility and gathering pipeline in the Anadarko Woodford, to be the gauge for production in the region.